If you Google search for the definition of 'Antihero' the first result comes back thus: "A central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes." Given this definition, John Wayne Cleaver from Dan Well's breakout novel "I am not a Serial Killer" is certainly an antihero.
If I told you the protagonist, John Cleaver, was a sociopath, had all the characteristic elements of a serial killer, was obsessed with serial killers, death and dead bodies, would you read it? To some this sounds intriguing, to others you might be turned off. But if you reject the idea of a novel with such a twisted central character you'd be missing out on a fantastic read!
"I am not a serial killer" is the best fiction book I have read in a VERY long time. John Wayne Cleaver is a fascinating protagonist because there is so very little to like about him. And yet, from the very first chapter I loved him, and was gripped by his story. Although Cleaver is an antihero, he is not your typical run-of-the-mill antihero and it's this difference that makes his story so compelling.
Why is he different?
In most stories today, an Antihero is usually a bad person, who does bad things, for supposedly good reasons. The first one I can think of was The Punisher, that gun toting, sewer dwelling Dolf Lundgren lookalike guy who went around murdering every mobster he could find in retribution for killing his family. Over the years Anitheroes have changed, morphing from someone who does bad things, into someone who is truly a bad person. Game of Thrones is ripe with characters like this. Perverts, liars, murderers and other despicable people doing terrible things to one another. In fact, in Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin kills the only decent person in the first novel as a way of saying he doesn't like good people, noble characters or puppies.
The difference with Cleaver though, is that he is a truly despicable person with loads of bad character traits, who is actually trying to be the best version of himself he can be. This is the distinction that makes him so interesting and likable. We watch Antiheroes to see what nasty things they will do to the bad guys. We like their nastiness, and they like it too. But Cleaver knows he's a terrible person and predisposed to be a monster, and instead of giving into those tendencies, he fights constantly to be the best version of himself he can be.
This is what makes him so endearing.
But "I am not a serial killer" would not be unique for simply having an interesting protagonist. Obviously any likable story probably has an interesting main character. Wells pushes his book by first offering you a main character that is unlikable, that you wind up liking, and then gives you a villain that you dislike only for whom you eventually feel sympathy and admiration.
It's confusing, but oh so cool.
Traditionally in stories human qualities like Love, Family, Friendship and protecting those that are weaker than yourself are portrayed as virtues and strengths. However Wells turns these things on their head by giving you a protagonist who values none of those things, and a villain who does.
Thus in a masterful stroke Wells turns virtue into vice, and strength into weakness.
I will not spoil the story (in case you actually read it) and reveal to you who the villain is, but I will say I was pretty sure I knew who it was before Wells revealed it. But the power of the story is not in the surprise revelation of the villain's identity, but rather in the unique and clever way Wells unfolds the story and creates a setting where you are not sure who SHOULD win - the villain or the 'good guy' - and if by winning, Cleaver will ultimately succumb to the temptation of becoming a villain.
Let me allay your fears about the content.
If you're reading this and thinking that a book about a serial killer must have graphic content, don't worry, it doesn't. In fact I would give this book no more than a PG rating. Wells does a wonderful job of dealing with dark subject matter without allowing the story to fall into the drain of graphic violence, sex and language. Too many writers today feel that in order to tell a story with unpleasant concepts, you must also advocate and dramatize those things. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo and The Game of Thrones series are two that come to mind. I am not a serial killer has a dark protagonist and antagonist and keeps you on the edge of your seat, without descending to those easy depths.
Dan Wells has also published a young adult post apocalyptic adventure trilogy, the first of which is called "Partials" and I am in the middle of reading it now. I am anxiously awaiting buying the second of the Serial Killer books, 'Mr. Monster' to continue the series and see what the future holds for the creepy John Wayne Cleaver.
One last endorsement for this book before closing.
Dan Wells is one of the founding members of a podcast I have listened to for years called Writing Excuses. I had the pleasure of spending seven days at the Writing Excuses retreat this past summer and I got to spend time with all of the podcasters. Dan and his wife (who was also at the retreat) were both warm, witty and fun to be around. Dan tells funny stories, doesn't take himself too seriously. Often this is not the case. Also rumor has it that this book might become a movie one day. You can check out the IMDB page here. If the rumors are true, Wells deserves the accolades that a feature film would bring both as a writer and as a good person, since it seems the world is in short supply of those these days. (Good people that is. You can throw a rock outside your bedroom window and probably hit someone who calls themselves a writer).
Dan Wells is a name you might not have heard of but between the possible movie deal and several quality novels in print, he wont stay unknown for long.